Why Are Journalists Being Imprisoned in Egypt?

By Tom Dale

Journalists gather in Nairobi to support imprisoned Al Jazeera journalist Peter Greste.

Abdullah Elshamy, a correspondent for Al Jazeera, has now been in prison for 175 days and on hunger strike for a little over two weeks.

"I've lost a number of pounds. I only rely on liquids. The littlest effort makes me feel dizzy," he wrote in a letter smuggled out of his prison cell, where he isn't allowed access to pens or paper. "But it's what I feel compelled to do in order to raise awareness about the importance of freedom of speech."

Abdullah—who was arrested in August last year when armed police violently cleared a sit-in held by supporters of former president Mohamed Morsi—is one of four Al Jazeera journalists in jail, all detained on vague charges while prosecutors prepare formal proceedings. They are among the dozens of reporters in Egypt who have been beaten up or detained over the past six months. Nine more have been killed since the start of the uprising in 2011.

These arrests and many of the deaths are symptomatic of what the country has turned into since the army ousted the Muslim Brotherhood–affiliated Morsi last summer. Egypt's interim government is doing everything in its power to silence Brotherhood sympathizers, crushing the country's revolutionary street movements by issuing a law that effectively bans any form of public protest.  

In a country as volatile as Egypt, control of the narrative can easily translate into control of the streets, and control of the streets into political power. Althought it has been removed, for much of the past three years a heavy machine gun emplacement was an awkward presence in the international press center of the state television building, a reminder that the power to broadcast is a security asset. So the authorities are unlikely to welcome journalists giving Brotherhood supporters a platform to tell their side of the narrative.

Al Jazeera's Arabic-language services are seen as partisan supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, in line with the foreign policy of the news company's owners in Qatar. And there's some justification for that view; Qatar's rulers propped up Egypt's finances during the year that Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood held power. Yet Al Jazeera Arabic is no more partisan than the rest of Egypt's media—it's just that they hold a slightly different bias.

During the recent referendum, for example, according to the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, "the media became a one-note mobilization campaign [for the constitutional amendments made by the military-led government], with the only dissonant note offered by Al-Jazeera [Live] Egypt."

A video of the Marriott hotel raid, dubbed with music far too dramatic to be used over footage of laptops and hard drives.

Three of Elshamy's Al Jazeera colleagues, who work for the English-language service, were arrested after a raid on their makeshift studio in central Cairo's Marriott hotel on December 29. In a statement, the government prosecutor's office said that the team was producing "fabricated footage" to aid “the terrorist group [the Muslim Brotherhood] in achieving its goals and influencing the public opinion." (After the interim government came to power, it officially designated the Brotherhood a terrorist organization, despite the lack of any evidence to that effect.)

Egypt's State Information Service says that the team was working without broadcast permits, providing a copy of an accreditation application letter from Al Jazeera that lists three staff members but none of those who have been detained. A source close to Al Jazeera's Egypt operation said that after a raid on their offices in August last year, it was clear that official permits would not be granted to the network, and the decision was made to work without approval from officials. In the video of the raid, however, one of the journalists is claiming in Arabic that an application had been made.

The award-winning former BBC correspondent Peter Greste, another Al Jazeera journalist currently in prison, has managed to smuggle two letters out of his cell. "Our arrest doesn't seem to be about our work at all," he wrote. "It seems to be about staking out what the government here considers to be normal and acceptable. Anyone who applauds the state is seen as safe and deserving of liberty. Anything else is a threat that needs to be crushed."

Greste was being held in a cell next door to several secular youth activists, more collateral victims of the crackdown on public dissent. They were able to pass him books and magazines sent from outside, but on Monday—according to a family member of one of the imprisoned activists—he was moved from his cell. His whereabouts are currently unknown, and in Egypt's tediously slow judicial system the accused can be kept in squalid conditions for months while prosecutors prepare their cases.

The gradually shrinking arena for free media is not just about Al Jazeera. One of the few critical journalists to write a regular column in a major newspaper resigned this week after one of his articles was censored by the editor, filmmaker Hossam Meneai was snatched from his flat on preliminary charges of "spreading false news," and a Dutch journalist has fled Egypt after she was accused of being part of the Al Jazeera operation, though her only connection with it was that she'd met one of the detained journalists on one occasion.

In the first of his letters from prison, Elshamy described the scene in his cell: "It's three in the morning. While everyone in the cell is fast asleep, a breeze of air penetrates the ceiling full of iron rods... Sixteen of us are lying in an space of 12 meters... There is no life here."

Nevertheless, despite the hugely bleak situation he's found himself in, the Al Jazeera reporter seems to be well aware that his imprisonment isn't going unnoticed—that, to the international community, it's the perfect representation of the blanket crackdown on dissent and stifling of free speech being inflicted by Egypt's interim government.  

"I do not regret any day I've stayed in this place," he wrote. "We are witnesses of freedom and will always be remembered as that."

Follow Tom on Twitter: @tom_d_

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